Democracy Symposium: Cantamos los Estados Unidos
We watch a substantial amount of Univisión (and Telemundo) in our house. It started some years ago when I realized that they provided another option for watching the big international soccer competitions—i.e. the European Cup, the Copa América, and World Cup. It only expanded as I got hooked on the commentary. If your Spanish is up to the task, Pablo Ramírez and Jesús Bracamontes are far, far better than any of the English-language analysts available to soccer fans watching stateside (N.B. It’s not even close—try to imagine Taylor Twellman this excited about a goal. You can’t.). By the time the London Olympics started, I was hooked for other sports as well.
During the 2010 World Cup, Univisión developed a sorting theme for their viewers: as the tournament wore on, they classified teams as “uno de los nuestros” (“one of ours”) or not. This took a number of forms during the coverage. Game commentators introduced the match as a faceoff between competing members of “our” community or as a tilt between “us” and some alien “them.” During coverage breaks, they’d kick viewers back to Univisión central where people dressed in the national uniforms of all of “our” countries would make predictions for upcoming games and dance—led by women in matching bikinis.
You’re probably thinking that you could name most of the teams that Univisión included in their privileged community—and you’d probably be (mostly) right. Most of “los nuestros” were the countries of Latin America, but the United States also made the cut. That’s right—we got a dancing woman in a bikini as well. We also got preferential treatment from the commentators. Fans supporting various Latin American countries were urged to support us when we faced off against “others” like England, Slovenia, and Algeria.
This was presented without any question. Indeed, the only debate seemed to be over whether or not Spain counted as one of “los nuestros.” Several Univisión commentators accepted them without question, but at least one recalled past racism that he faced as a Latin American player in Spain decades earlier.
And…*ahem.* Throat-clearing done. All of this lengthy prelude gets me back to the Olympics, and to the point I’m trying to make.
The coolest thing about the above example, I think, is how it reveals the true American Dream to be something other than simple class mobility. Ours is a country that’s admired not only as a land of economic opportunity, but also as a nation where pluralism has pride of place. At its best, America is a country that celebrates difference (of all sorts) as part of the national identity binding us together. In other words, our national core is a bridge from the parochial to the cosmopolitan. To be American is to partake in a particular tradition, but it is not a fixed or static stream. Ours is as fluid and changing as it is inclusive. Whatever else we are, we Americans are all voices in “the varied carols” that Whitman heard when he heard America singing.
The Olympics drive that home as beautifully and poignantly as anything else. We’ve heard plenty about how American gymnasts Danell Leyva and John Orozco represent a new and encouraging diversity in their sport, but they’re hardly the only stories (Cf. runner Leo Manzano, one-time undocumented immigrant from Mexico). The United States’ national soccer teams exemplify the diversity that makes us great. In the last few years we’ve called up players of Latin, Asian, African, and European American backgrounds—on and off the pitch, Brian Ching and Oguchi Onyewu are as American as Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey. The women’s team offers similar stories. Sure, this happens elsewhere too—Cf. Brazilian-born Croatian striker Eduardo—but in the USA it’s a pattern, not just an occasional opportunistic exception.
Univisión’s comfortable inclusion of the United States in the crowd of “los nuestros” is a testament to the health of this part of our tradition. They take it for granted that the country’s Spanish-speaking community sees itself as part of the broader American community.
And yes, to some degree this is nothing more than a reiteration of old, obvious things. “Unity in Diversity” isn’t a new idea—it’s as trite and clichéd as, well, House of Blues kitsch. But it bears repeating in an era when ugly, intolerant, and historically inaccurate tropes about America’s Anglo-Saxon (read “whites of a certain sort”) heritage have been newly resurrected.
There are much more interesting questions lurking behind the (usually unprofitable) “are we/aren’t we a Christian or Protestant or WASP or plural nation?” debates: Just how much common ground does a liberal democracy need? Is there a point where a country becomes so diverse as to be unrecognizable as a distinct entity? In other words, can our cosmopolitanism eventually swallow up the things that make us American? And above all—have we already reached that tipping point?
Here’s a provisional answer: liberalism and democracy are at least partly in tension. Technically speaking, liberalism is the doctrine that takes individuals and their rights to be the fundamental variables at issue in political life. A host of familiar theories stem from this—most famously the social contract and many defenses of free markets. Democracy, meanwhile, is the system of governance which takes equal political participation and majority rule as the means for settling disputes and setting policy.
(Yes, these definitions are problematic and contested and incomplete. It’s a blog post, not a discussion seminar. Approximate building blocks will have to do.)
You see, individual rights define zones of behavior where public tolerance rules. If you’ve a right to religious conscience, your choice of how and where to worship will be largely left alone. This is—fortunately—a familiar mechanism, since Americans have progressively expanded public tolerance to include women, humans of all races, and so on and so forth.
The problem: that expansion of tolerance has always had universalist pretensions. The original liberals were deeply suspicious of circumscribed traditions, since those often provided a guise for coercion and intolerance. For example, your charming local tradition of burning religious heretics (or those who don’t recognize your Savior as their own) at the stake violates their rights to a number of things. Your clergy’s tradition of exercising land-use privileges prevents many thousands of humans from owning any property. Your tradition of using your daughters as economic and political bargaining chips prevents them from enjoying the freedom of choosing love and a life of their own design. Traditions hide privilege—and they can be hidden nigh on anywhere.
Most of us would agree that those were laudable expansions of inclusiveness, but at some point liberalism’s corrosiveness reaches a tipping point where traditions continue to be eroded regardless of their relationship to privilege. Instead, they’re criticized and eliminated because they are awkward—all the more so now that they’re isolated from the erstwhile frameworks within which they developed. Liberalism destroys these things, sometimes in the name of markets, or Reason, or the universal fellowship of all humans. Soon we are blithely certain that a free, secular market will break out everywhere at the end of history—and that this is imminent.
And I’m playing fast and loose and skipping tons of chapters in the narrative here, but suffice it to say that at some further point in this process it becomes clear that national boundaries are just one further stumbling block on the path towards full freedom from tradition. At some point it occurs to us that national allegiances are outmoded and inadequate to our burgeoning cosmopolitanism. If you live on either American coast, you know a lot of people who think this way.
That gets us to the problem: democratic decision-making relies upon sharing enough to form majorities. It usually requires public debate over decisions (though I suppose it’s theoretically possible to have democracy without deliberation). As I’ve written recently, meaningful deliberation requires sharing some common, substantive convictions with our opponents. Humans who share nothing are alien to each other, while humans who share everything have nothing to discuss. Without a common political, cultural, and/or moral tradition, we’re left with a very thin political life. Limiting though it may be, tradition is the stuff that politics is made of.
In sum: liberalism eats away at the ties that bind us together—and that’s often an unquestionably good thing. It fuels the pluralist tolerance that allows American Latinos to see the United States as one of “los nuestros.” Democracy depends upon a thick, shared background that can be interpreted and discussed before political actions are taken. Obviously democratic majorities have frequently been marshaled in service of astonishing violence and striking cruelty. There is nothing inherently good about traditions or deliberation—but it’s difficult to sustain anything like a meaningful democracy without either. The point I’m after is about the processes involved, not necessarily the ends that have periodically been reached.
So liberal democracies may have an unstable core. On its own, that’s no reason to be alarmed—though we might take it as a salutary reminder that they are not as inevitable or end-of-history-type stable as we sometimes pretend. We also might bridge that tension by means of a further distinction (and one that many preceding liberal democrats have noted). Not all pluralism is created equal—nor is all cosmopolitanism. Though expanded public tolerance threatens to spill into public nihilism, there’s nothing guaranteeing that it will do so.
If liberal democracy has a future, it will rest upon prudentially tacking back and forth along that boundary line. It will always be pulled towards erosion of particular and traditional limits, and this will sometimes be precisely what is most needed. Sometimes it will not. The American genius in this regard has almost always come down to pacing. When old prerogatives fall, we’ve often had the good sense to incorporate the new cosmopolitanism into our own past. We’ve re-written and reinterpreted core American documents to explain how we’ve always meant to include this, that, or the other new group all along. We’ve gradually included more cosmopolitanism into our own parochial tradition. Of course, this organic incorporation is only possible if we take things slow.
Looking for the next big expansion of tolerance? Let’s include more soccer on our televisions and in our culture writ large—but only if Ramírez and Bracamontes get the commentary gig.
Conor P. Williams borrowed a lot of this argument from Michael Oakeshott. Williams writes and teaches in Washington, D.C. Feed his fragile ego by following on Facebook, Twitter, and at http://www.conorpwilliams.com. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Here’s some red meat for the comments section: I suspect that something like that final question is what’s driving a lot of the “take our country back” pushes on the American Right. A certain segment of the population (Cf. this poll) can’t help see President Obama as a member of “the other,” the “not-American.” There’s almost no limit to the ways that conservatives have written him out of the American community. He has a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview. He “pals around with terrorists.” He attended a radical madrassa overseas. He is cosmopolitan and socialist and Europhilic and so on and so forth. Even when they deign to grant him membership in our national tradition, they dismiss him as a master of Chicago-style corruption. Almost every president to date has inspired sustained loathing on the part of his most committed opponents (Cf. Lincoln), but no other has had his patriotism so frequently doubted or the adequacy of his American-ness so often called into question.